On the Pleasures and Profitability of Being Human First – Even as CEO
When Dennis Fois was appointed CEO of NewVoiceMedia in 2018, he brought a unique understanding of the value of conversations. Brought up in a family of hoteliers and restauranteurs, he internalized at an early age the need for personal connections with customers. In fact, as a toddler, his father promoted him to the front of the house at a restaurant because of the conversations inspired by the welcome of a self-describer “five-year-old motormouth.”
A few years later, Dennis fell in love with technology and started imagining new ways to combine it with conversations to create experiences that were good for customers, agents and businesses alike. After more than 25 years’ experience in international leadership, strategy and sales and marketing, including senior leadership positions at eGain, Barclays, Solera and ADP, Dennis held the role of CEO at Rant & Rave, before first coming to NewVoiceMedia in 2017 as president and COO.
Today, with technology such as artificial intelligence and chat bots threatening to upend the contact center, and the concept of customer experience becoming a watchword, we talked to Dennis about finding order in a world that merges the benefits of cutting-edge technology with the need humans have for conversation and connection.
"I’M REALLY AGAINST THE IDEA OF HUMANIZING TECHNOLOGY. THAT’S REALLY NOT THE GOAL. THE TECHNOLOGY SHOULD HELP US ACHIEVE OUR GOALS FASTER AND MAKE IT FRICTIONLESS, SO BOTS HAVE A PLACE."
Let’s talk about bots. A decade ago, we outsourced a lot of our support overseas, and customer satisfaction and customer experience suffered. Are we setting ourselves up for the same failure with bots?
Potentially. The industry has always struggled with the question of: How much cost can you absorb for assisted human interactions? The problem is it’s the wrong question. You’re asking a cost question, and that leads to call deflection strategies. If you’re coming at it from a deflection strategy, and you don’t have an overarching experience strategy, it’s going to hurt.
That thinking led to contact center off-shoring to low labor-cost countries, and it didn’t work out very well. You now see a huge amount of insourcing as large contact centers are being on-shored again.
From that, we learnt that your point of view should be the experience you’re trying to orchestrate for digital and for assisted, live interactions. If that’s your primer, a bot could be perfectly useful for that, as they are very useful in reducing the level of effort that customers have to exert when they interact with your systems. Instead of forcing callers into a tree structure, bots can create a more natural and conversational way to get to the right agent.
If you care about customer experience, there are three components that matter. One, your customers need to achieve their goals and they need to do this fast. Two, interactions need to be frictionless and as low-effort as possible. Three is emotion, and how you make them feel. Your bot can’t handle the third component. You have to orchestrate and deliberately model in people-to-people interactions. If you don’t, you’re not going to be differentiated, because the bot you have is the same one your competitor has.
How would you use bots the right way?
You must say, here’s what my people are extremely good at – forging connections, understanding ambiguous problems, inferring information and asking questions that might go beyond the script, empathizing with someone, understanding why they’re out of breath while on the phone or why they might have chosen to be on a chat with you. Humans must connect and relate because ultimately, customers connect with individuals, not brands.
If we deploy a bot at NewVoiceMedia, it will be very clear that the bot is there for a type of task we think bots are good at. We will be very thoughtful about when the handover will take place to a human. The bot should help collect information that allows us to make a decision about the best person to help you with your problem. There’s nothing left to chance in that handoff – it’s very deliberate. You’ll land on exactly the right person.
I believe there are a ton of good uses for bots, and the best ones create space for us humans to be present, to be in the moment having meaningful conversations with our customers. That’s when the magic happens.
Does making bot technology more human help or hinder the process of creating a great customer experience?
I’m really against the idea of humanizing technology. That’s really not the goal. The technology should help us achieve our goals faster and make it frictionless, so bots have a place. But they can’t be billed as another human. We can’t be confused. And we have a moral and societal obligation as technology leaders to not be confused. It’s people first and technology second. By no means have we as humans fully understood the concepts of connecting and emotion, so the idea that a spotty teenager in a dark room can program and code this interaction is ridiculous. I refuse to accept it intellectually, and I find it a bit of an insult.
Many think AI will displace people. People who know AI say it will end up as a useful assistant to help agents become more responsive to customers’ needs. Is that the way you see AI influencing the call center?
I hope so. Our approach is to ask how AI becomes an enabler for higher quality conversations, and more of them. And the agent will feel great and the customer will feel great and the prospect will feel great because it feels authentic – the agent is present. They won’t have to search and go through the system, “hold on a second, I’m going to look this up.”
You’re identifying a world where agents are becoming experts because technology like self-service and bots will handle the easy questions and leave agents the more information-critical questions. As those questions become more complex, they won’t have a future without that assistive technology.
I think you’re totally right. The future of the contact center is a concentrated workforce of higher-skilled agents. It’s less of what it is today, where you staff for capacity. Agent interactions will be more complex or higher value or emotively important for the journey – service experiences that have cognitive value. It’s unimaginable to think that you could recruit and retain agents that can do all of that. There’s a fabulous set of use cases that we’re working on about making the agent a super-agent. How do you do that? How can AI help with that?
That will change the relationship between the callers and the customer – and it also gives the contact center a chance to re-position itself within the business as a driver of loyalty, a way to differentiate the company, and to turn the role of the agent into something much more interesting and valuable to the business.
It’s exciting. Contact centers don’t require you to be in one place any more. This is a job you can do anywhere you can serve and interact with customers. You can do that from home – you could do that from a coffee shop! That creates very scalable models for progressive companies that want to differentiate themselves. They can work to attract the right people wherever they reside, because cloud technologies and communications technologies allow us to be flexible. That’s where you start to build competitive advantages in your workforce.
It also makes working in the contact center meaningful work, which would reverse the trends in agent churn. Average churn swings between 25 and 30 percent now. Those levels are unsustainable. The millennial workforce is signaling even worse trends. It’s the perfect climate to screw up. It’s the perfect climate to say, “AI is the answer, so let’s make sure that no calls ever get to the agents.” We have an entirely different lens. We think the answer is quite the opposite. I feel pretty good about our argument. The contact center of the future is going to be more important than ever.
Why do you see person-to-person conversations as such an important thing?
We think we are rational creatures, but we’re not. The more educated you are, the more you believe you are a very rational being, but the opposite couldn’t be more true. We are incredibly emotive creatures, and our first system is emotive, based on incredibly powerful self-preservation systems that have been ingrained in us for thousands of years, and no one is capable of being in complete control of those systems.
Imagine you grew up in a village with a butcher you visited regularly. At the butcher’s, you’re prepared to pay $10 for a piece of meat that you could have bought for $5 somewhere else. Why? Because you cared about the store? No. But you had a rapport, you have irrationalities that bound you, and you enjoyed the little chit chat and the humor, and the feeling that you’re part of something, you belonged to something. Luckily for us – for all of us – that’s what binds people together. These human-to-human interactions are so important. Technology should get out of the way and help them happen at a global scale. If it doesn’t do that, if it’s introducing friction or if it’s trying to remove us from connecting, it’s failed.
There’s a value to being known. In the contact center space, that’s really important. When a customer calls, they've had a linear experience with the business and they expect the business to know them. Nothing breaks that more effectively than an organization that has no idea who its callers are.
I agree. The bar is going to go higher and higher on that. That’s not about the deployment of technology. It’s really about customers feeling that it’s clear who they’re dealing with. It must feel like it’s coherent and a consistent experience.
If you could change one thing about the tech industry, what would it be?
I’d make it less self-absorbed. It’s a bit narcissistic. We’re should not forget that we're not doing this for ourselves: 'Look at us! We have the greatest technology!'
We’re doing this for others – we’re helping our customers help their customers, or we’re doing this for our agents. I think that we, as an industry, very often lose sight of that. I’d love it if the self-congratulatory attitude was toned down a little bit. I'd love it if we were more subservient and more graceful about the societal purpose that we, as technology companies, serve.
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